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Beethoven Concertos C220043
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Ludwig van BEETHOVEN (1770-1827)
The Piano Concertos & Choral Fantasy
Piano Concerto No 1 in C major, Op 15 (1795) [37:18]
Piano Concerto No 2 in B-flat major, Op 19 (1795) [27:17]
Piano Concerto No 3 in C minor, Op 37 (1800?) [35:15]
Piano Concerto No 4 in G major, Op 58 (1805-6) [35:22]
Piano Concerto No 5 in E-flat major, ‘Emperor', Op 73 (1809) [38:43]
Choral Fantasy, Op 80 [18:34]
Rudolf Serkin (piano)
Bavarian Radio Symphony Orchestra/Rafael Kubelík
rec. live, October-November 1977, Herkulessaal, Munich Residence, Germany
Stereo ADD
ORFEO C220043 [3 CDs: 194:33]

Given Rudolf Serkin’s reputation as one of the greatest 20th Century interpreters of Beethoven, my expectation of this Orfeo release were high. He made studio recordings of all the piano concertos with Ormandy in the 50s, recorded the Third and Fifth with Bernstein in the early 60s and another studio set of the complete concertos in the Boston Symphony Hall with Ozawa in the early 80s, when he was between 78 and 81 years old, but this set of live performances in the Herkulessaal in 1977 is of particular interest because it was widely observed that the Serkin of the recording studio did not have the same intensity as what audiences heard live in concert. His match with Rafael Kubelík would appear to be apt, as both were artists renowned for shunning any grandstanding and always putting themselves at the service of the music.

To some ears that can come across as too much emotional restraint, even reticence; I confess to being more responsive to the interpretative stance and freedom of such pianists as Mikhail Pletnev whose complete set on DG - also recorded live - has remained my favourite for its daring, but I readily concede that others find him indulgent and even vulgar in his readiness to take risks. Classical poise and restraint, especially in the earlier concertos, are certainly to be esteemed, although the full-blown Romantic Beethoven became increasingly apparent as the series of five concertos progressed and a greater degree of bravado is surely desirable in the latter two. Kubelik’s accompaniment is similarly tasteful but sometimes to the point of being respectfully anonymous; I find Christian Gansch directing the Russian National Orchestra with Pletnev to be livelier.

You will by now have gathered that I am not quite as bowled over by these performances as I had hoped to be. This has something to do with the sound, which is perfectly acceptable but rather muddy, boomy and recessed; I would have liked the orchestra to have been more forwardly focused, as things like the chattering bassoon in the opening movement of the first concerto are lost. Nonetheless, Orfeo’s transfers are invariably reliable and usually the best available, as they have access to the original radio broadcast tapes and this is sincere, unshowy playing. There is no sign of Serkin having lost any fluency or dexterity despite being 74 years old; he plays these concertos essentially “straight”, in what to me seems a somewhat dry, characterless manner, whereas with Pletnev and Kissin, for example, I hear all sorts if quirky little details and refinements – although some might hear that as “pulling the music about”.

I have always thought the First Piano Concerto both unduly patronised and, despite its evident classical roots, wholly typical of Beethoven’s dynamism, and Serkin delivers a fleet, powerful account complete with Beethoven’s own fiery cadenza in the first movement. The slow movement is a little lacking in tenderness, however, and despite the average sound, we can still hear the pianist humming along rather annoyingly – at least I assume it is he and not the conductor. Serkin’s oddly diffident, almost hesitant, lack of attack on the opening of the concluding Rondo, too, really took me by surprise; surely the music requires more gusto than he brings to it here?

Beethoven’s apparent disdain for his Second Piano Concerto – in fact his first, on which he worked on and off over eight years without ever being wholly satisfied with it – is identifiably more conventional and was clearly a vehicle for the young virtuoso to make his mark, so it needs to be played with bravura. Serkin despatches it almost nonchalantly, whereas I simply find both Kissin and Pletnev more interesting – and they are recorded in much better digital sound. The Adagio, however, is meltingly played and the orchestral contribution seems more heartfelt. The Rondo is vivacious and spritely, and indeed, I find Serkin’s lighter touch here more apt and persuasive than Pletnev’s percussive manner, while Kissin is too fast and jerky, even if his pyrotechnics are impressive as flashy playing per se.

Kubelík suffuses the long introduction of the Third opens with dark, mysterious hues before the more cheering countermelody in the major lends the music courage and we notice the excellence of the orchestra. Almost fourteen years earlier, Bernstein, by contrast, is much less subtle and more staccato in phrasing, thereby losing some of the murky menace of the music by being too overt. Serkin’s entry is correspondingly intense; he was even more muscular with Bernstein but somehow not as imposing as he is here in Munich. Presumably under Bernstein’s influence, the Largo here is played considerably faster than in New York, more in line with conventional timings, and as a result, its affinity with Chopin’s lyricism emerges more strikingly – though again, I could do without Serkin’s vocalisation. The most cheerful of Beethoven’s finales is all bounce and brightness.

The Fourth opens with the majestic simplicity of the solo piano chord and Serkin continues in that magisterial vein, playing with the vigour, accuracy and virtuosity of a man half his age. The pounded chords at 10:50 make a mighty statement, the ensuing runs are pearlescent and the cadenza brilliant. In the Andante, his response to the orchestra’s aggressive, assertive opening chords is almost apologetic and sorrowful, like a voice bemoaning the cruelty of a hostile world, whereas other interpreters are more resistant, but Serkin’s way is certainly interesting and engaging. The finale, as with the Third, is characterised by a quicksilver adroitness interspersed with passages of great power, as in the chordal introduction to the cadenza.

Of course, everyone has a favourite ‘Emperor’ concerto recording. Among the innumerable possibilities in the catalogue, I love the historical wartime recording by Walter Gieseking in which, chillingly, you can hear the allied bombs dropping on Berlin in the background. Of Wilhelm Backhaus’ recordings, the best is the live broadcast from Lugano in 1961, while my wild card recommendation is Hanae Nakajima (see my entry under our MusicWeb Survey of Our Favorite Neglected Recordings). This live, analogue account by Serkin should, I suppose, be measured against similarly engineered recordings; a classic version remains Stephen Kovacevich with Sir Colin Davis made in 1969, and playing that immediately reveals markedly superior sound to this Orfeo radio broadcast. For a mainstream, readily available modern recording in digital sound, the field is wide and I hesitate to venture there, saying only that I default to Pletnev for my own pleasure, but he might be thought too wilful in his phrasing for some, in which case there is Kissin, who is fluent and fearless, but also poetic, enjoying flexible accompaniment from Levine and the Philharmonia.

Serkin, too, begins boldly and authoritatively, but does not toy recklessly with the phrasing as does Pletnev, who leaving daring gaps in the opening statement in order to accentuate the drama of the music. He enjoys alert, sympathetic accompaniment from Kubelík but again, the orchestra is backwardly placed in the sound picture and at times the conductor seems too relaxed. Serkin’s timing for the beautiful Adagio comes exactly half-way between Pletnev’s race through it at 7:17 and Kissin’s more leisurely 9:10; I find it to be ideally paced and most elegantly and feelingly played – only again, Serkin’s vocal obbligato is obtrusive and, in many ways, both Kissin’s sustained line and concentration and Pletnev’s rapt languorousness are equally attractive. Conversely, Serkin does not generate the same excitement as do Pletnev and Kissin in the manic waltz and the Orfeo recording does not let us hear dynamic shading or the left-hand curlicues as clearly.

The Choral Fantasy is a welcome bonus and a Serkin favourite which is not often heard. It is an odd, episodic, somewhat fragmentary piece which is still thought of as a curiosity and whose neglect is not that hard to understand, but is here given ideal advocacy. Its close textual and musical kinship to Schiller’s “Ode to Joy” is very much in evidence. Serkin’s virtuosity obviously predominates but different solo instruments apart from the piano are also given their chance to shine and the orchestra obliges, while the vocal contributions are first charming then stirring when the choral ensemble sings its tutti.

Apparently, these recordings first briefly appeared on CD in 2005 but soon disappeared, so this new issue on Orfeo will be welcomed by admirers of both the soloist and conductor; however, as much as I enjoy it, my allegiance to the livelier, more eccentric and better recorded Pletnev accounts is not shaken.

Ralph Moore

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